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February 08, 2006

The History of The Times: The Murdoch Years - Graham Stewart

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The History of The Times: The Murdoch Years
by Graham Stewart
Pp. 736. London: Harper Collins, 2005
Hardback, £30

This book has an awkward status. Stewart acknowledges that it is an "official" history. He was given privileged access to private correspondence and business documents. It seems unlikely to be a mere coincidence that the book is published by Harper Collins, which, like The Times, is owned by Rupert Murdoch. Stewart insists that it is not an "authorized version of events". But he admits that there will be the same accusation that used to be levelled at obituaries in The Times - "sniff of an inside job".

Whatever criticisms might be made of Murdoch's suitability to own such a prestigious journal, a grim fate awaited it before he came along. It was, like the rest of Fleet Street, in the grip of the print unions. Murdoch may be the leading hate figure for the Left (perhaps after President Bush). That did not mean that those on the Left approved of the print unions.

Tim Austin, who worked at The Times from 1968 right through to 2003 is quoted in the book saying:

We couldn't stand the print unions. They'd been screwing us for years. You didn't know if the paper was going to come out at night. You would work for it for ten hours and then they would pull the plug and you had wasted ten hours of your life.
Before Murdoch bought it, The Times had spent nearly a year when it was not published at all. This meant it was unable to report Margaret Thatcher's election as Prime Minister in 1979. The final straw came when - after this particular dispute with the print unions had been resolved and the paper started publishing again - the journalists went on strike. Although that strike only lasted a week it broke the will of the management to continue. The editor William Rees-Mogg wrote a leader entitled How to Kill a Newspaper. The owner Lord Thomson decided to sell.

After something of a tussle Murdoch managed to buy it. As the paper had been losing money a referral to the Monopolies Commission was not required. Perhaps to placate his critics Murdoch's first editor was Harold Evans, a mild Leftist.

One of the curious aspects of this book is the odd mix of soap opera anecdotes about feuding journalists with high minded accounts of the influence of public pronouncements in The Times on such matters as the Falklands war or the economy. The problem with the latter material is it often ends up reading like a synopsis of modern British political history rather than an account of the fortunes of a newspaper.

The former material gives a good feel for the childishness and muddled rivalry of journalists who earn a living noting the failings of others. Here is an account of a spat circa 1982 between Michael Leapman, the New York correspondent, and Brian Horton the Foreign Editor:

One of Horton's techniques was to unsettle Leapman by sending him dismissive comments about the quality of his grammar. Not that Horton knew any better. He covertly obtained the judgments of the literary editor Philip Howard, who innocently thought Horton was seeking advice on grammatical matters, as a form of self-improvement. Leapman, meanwhile, continued to express dissatisfaction and when Evans demanded an assurance of a "reasonable" attitude, he resigned, preferring to become "William Hickey" on The Express instead.
After Evans resigned Charles Douglas-Home became editor and The Times came off the fence politically. For instance, when it came to the cold war there was no equivocation, no agonising efforts to find accommodation with the Soviets through a return to détente. There was an intellectually rigorous rebuttal to the arguments of CND. Given that in the early 1980s it was generally assumed that the Soviet system was permanent, Douglas-Home was ahead of his time in calling for it to be defeated rather than accommodated.

Very sadly Douglas-Home died young of bone cancer and heroically continued as editor in the latter stages despite being in considerable pain. At one stage he was conducting editorial conferences lying flat on his back on the office floor. But he survived for the paper's 200th anniversary celebrations in 1985. His time had seen a tremendous advance for the paper both in terms of circulation and of editorial calibre.

His chosen successor - a Glaswegian called Charlie Wilson, dubbed "Charlie Gorbals" by Private Eye - came from a very different social background but also proved to be a successful editor. In January 1986 the paper moved to Wapping a few weeks after Wilson had taken change - something of a baptism of fire. As it is the 20th anniversary, much comment has been made abut this development in the media recently. But it is good to see the full account of this exciting story given proper detail and context - the secrecy, the violence, the divided loyalties, and the political high drama. There was a precedent:

In 1814 John Walter II, the son of the founder of The Times, had wanted to use a modern steam press. It was installed secretly and off went the first edition without them realising.
Among the changes brought by Wilson was the recruitment of Matthew Parris as the Parliamentary sketch writer, an inspired move. Also during this era Times Portfolio, a sort of upmarket bingo, was introduced. The cartoonists included Mel Calman who would arrive, consult briefly about the issues of the day, produce cartoons within moments and then depart. He got away with it because of the generally high regard for his output. But one exception was the Duke of Edinburgh. HRH on a visit to the newspaper asked:
Did you draw those on the bus coming in then?
Wilson's more cerebral successors Simon Jenkins and then Peter Stothard had to fight off the rise of The Independent. Ironically this new rival had only become viable because of the Wapping revolution. There was the price war with the Daily Telegraph that at one stage resulted in The Times costing less than The Sun.

Under Stothard The Times gradually shifted towards New Labour. In 1997 it urged readers to vote for Eurosceptic candidates rather than endorsing a single party. Later the hounding of Michael Ashcroft followed. Certainly there was an unedifying aspect to the newspaper of getting stories from the government because of the cravenness of some of its lobby correspondents. But this book persuaded me that the whole truth was more complicated. Here is the account of their Night Editor David Ruddock on the behaviour of Blair's spin doctor Alastair Campbell:

telephoning, often several nights a week, to complain about what he had just read in the first edition. Ruddock would explain that he would investigate the complaint and report back. Almost invariably, the story would prove accurate but this would not prevent a tide of hectoring invective down the telephone line from Campbell. In the meantime, Ruddock would find PA wires being published announcing The Times had withdrawn its allegations when the paper had done no such thing.

"He was such a bore and a bully," Ruddock recalled of Campbell's nocturnal menaces, "that I ended up refusing to speak to him." The frequency and vitriolic manner of expression were much worse than The Times experienced from any previous party press office.

Whatever happened to Campbell? Er, he is now a journalist on The Times.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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